Q: A friend suggested I go on a “voluntour” this year for my holiday, though she didn’t know much about them. What exactly is a “voluntour” and how do I begin planning? - Sheila McMahon, Calgary, AB
A: A “voluntour” is a term used to describe a vacation where you volunteer your skills to a community abroad in need while immersing yourself in a foreign culture.
What to Book
Many travel agencies, adventure companies, and not-for-profit organizations offer a wide selection of volunteer trips. The types and durations vary considerably—you can do anything from building houses in Africa to researching and taking care of panda bears in Shanghai or working to improve a sea turtle’s chances for survival in Costa Rica. Finding the right trip depends on what you’re looking for, and what your interests are. Consider booking an all-inclusive package that includes your meals, (which can be as simple as campfire cookouts), accommodations (often tenting or staying with a host family), as well as your volunteer activities. Depending on the trip, you’ll often travel in a group with like-minded volunteers, making it a great way to meet interesting people from around the world.
Although these trips can be expensive, they are less costly than if you were to go on a resort holiday. Many people are shocked to find out that they have to pay to volunteer on their vacation, however it’s not all work and no play. Your trip will likely have a balanced itinerary with plenty of rest and free time to explore the country and go on excursions either alone or in a group. Keep in mind that the volunteering itself is usually enjoyable and rewarding too.
How to Plan
When planning your trip take at least three months to research the organization, region you’ll be visiting and types of volunteer activities involved. Some questions to ask are:
- Will there be a bilingual staff member from the organization on site and available to me at all times?
- How often are the accommodations monitored?
- What type of security is in place overnight?
- Will I be able to contact friends and family in case of an emergency? Will they be able to contact me?
- How long has the organization been conducting programs?
- How many people does the organization send each year?
- Does the organization have an operating universal crisis management plan?
- What do the fees cover?
- Is the trip tax-deductible (some trips booked through not-for-profit organizations are)
- Is the trip refundable if it is not safe to travel or if we have to evacuate?
To ensure you’ll have a safe and enjoyable trip, speak to someone who has already completed an experience with the same organization—a first hand testimonial will often provide you with additional information about safety, travel arrangements, accommodations, food, excursions, unforeseen costs, level of organization and volunteer supervision that a brochure or booking agent will not.
Where to Book
The following organizations are ones we found to be information heavy with plenty of volunteer options and unique destinations to choose from:
Regardless of where you book, we recommend doing sufficient research prior to handing over your credit card.
The reason you’re taking this trip is to make a difference in a region of the world that needs it most. There will be challenges, and you may find it difficult to deal with the poverty and harsh living conditions—it is not a luxury holiday. However, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience another culture first-hand and explore breathtaking regions, and gain a new perspective on your life during an unforgettable vacation.